Category Archives: English

Curriculum Cock-Ups?

Teachers, school leaders and experts across the land have been only to keen to point out that the latest changes to the National Curriculum seem rushed. Only this week we saw the ATL survey showing that eight of ten teachers don’t feel they’ve had enough time to prepare for it.

What is becoming increasingly evident is just what an impact such a rush has. I present just three examples of what I consider to be cock-ups that should have been ironed out before the curriculum documentation reached its final stage.

Exhibit A

The first is my particular favourite. At first glance, the spelling requirements for Y5/6 English don’t seem too ridiculous, until you look more closely at the fifth and sixth bullet points:

dictionariesI have yet to find anyone who can rationally explain to me the difference between these two requirements. Clearly, the wording is different, but is it only me that feels that this is just an error where someone forgot to delete one example?


Exhibit B

Now, I’m no history expert, so I’ve been trying to pull together some history ‘Cheat Sheets’ to help both me and others with the new strands of the curriculum. The area which has presented most challenge has been the new Non-European Study section. By far the most popular option has been the study of the Mayan Civilization, but some schools – particularly those with many West African students, or with some expertise in the area – would reasonably opt for Benin. A quick glance at the Wikipedia article for the kingdom suggests that it was at its most significant from 1440, yet for some reason the National Curriculum proposes that we study an alternative period:

benin

This seems all the more strange when you consider that, as the Historical Association says: “Benin didn’t really exist in 900 AD” and that the most famous of historical artefacts from Benin – the Benin Bronzes – date from the twelfth century onwards, with the most significant falling in the fifteenth century, well outside the proposed period.

So what was the rationale behind the very precisely defined 900-1300 period? Just another cock-up?


Exhibit C

Given that the new curriculum is meant to be “the best which has been thought and said“, you’d think that plenty of experts would have been involved in the development of the programmes of study. And given the great interest in the content of the History curriculum, perhaps none moreso than in this subject. Yet it was here that I found a further error. Again, to the untrained eye nothing seems amiss with the third British History unit:

scots

However, the most precursory research into that second bullet point – about the Scots invasions – suggests that perhaps too few experts were involved. For some time now, there has been much doubt about the idea that the Scots ever “invaded” at all. In fact, it seems more likely that the Gaels on the Scottish west coast were part of the same group as those in Northern Ireland; there is no archaeological evidence for an invasion. It is, at best, a contested issue.

Interestingly, when I raised the point with Scottish historian, Mark Jardine, he described it as a classic “myth history in chronicles vs. history” debate, and “way, way too complex” for lower KS2!


Of course, it could be argued that these mistakes are not errors at all, just… unusual choices. But given the very short time period allowed for drafting, redrafting and publishing the curriculum, is it any surprise that errors slipped through? Doubtless there may be more in the Secondary subjects which I haven’t even begun to look at.

Can they seriously argue that this wasn’t rushed?

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A mastery model for Writing: moving away from the text type treadmill

hell

Are we deceiving ourselves about cohesion?
(Cartoon from xkcd.com/724)

I wrote back in the autumn of 2013 about how I found the endless march through text types to be ineffective in really securing children’s skills in Writing. I have spoken at several events since about how our perception of a joined-up curriculum in primary schools may not be conveyed as well as we like to the children we teach. We often build our writing tasks around a common topic or text and describe this as building a coherent curriculum, but too often the cohesion is in the topic, and not in the skill of writing. I have likened this in the past to trying to build a wall with bricks simply by dropping lots of randomly-shaped bricks and hoping they’ll fall into place.

This year, I have tried to improve on this model by bringing greater coherence to the curriculum for Writing. That doesn’t necessarily mean moving away from thematic teaching, nor necessarily moving away from using the text types. However, my intention has been to adopt some of the principles of the mastery model that I discussed in my original blog: focussing on fewer aspects of writing for a greater length of time.

Initially, this was based on identifying common strands through the units we were intending to teach (see details in first blog). Later, however, I began to adapt the text types we were using to ensure that we spent longer focussing on common strands. The idea here was to group the text types together slightly to ensure that we spend longer focussing on common features rather than racing through the various types hoping that some of the content we threw at the children would stick!

Our initial model ended up looking something like this:

Writing Mastery model

Click to download PDF version

Over the course of the year we continued our usual units of study, with writing tasks adapted to focus on some common themes. Generally I would say that this has been a successful approach. I’m not convinced that it made any substantial difference to our progress in Writing this year, but I do think that the children have been – and will be – able to retain more of their knowledge of each of the genres, and so will be able to draw upon that knowledge more effectively in the future. One of my concerns of the race through the text types has been the lack of retention of the main features, meaning that almost every unit of work becomes a revision unit rather than developing further skill, at first at least.

As I approach the new year, however, I think there is more that could be done to develop this cohesion within and across year groups. Traditionally many schools have repeated the structure of the old Literacy framework by trying to get through many text types in each year, re-visiting regularly. My preference is to group the text types such that over the period of 6 weeks there are opportunities to learn and employ some of the key features. This has led me to a model based very loosely on the GCSE writing triplets:

Mastery Writing model

Click to download PDF

I realise that this clear division into fiction and non-fiction blocks will fill some teachers with dread. Many teachers have a preference for one strand or the other, and so find the through of a whole half-term without their favoured type quite daunting. I can understand this, but our focus has to be on providing the most effective curriculum design to help our students to retain the key elements of learning.

The advantages of this approach are hopefully evident at least in part. By focussing on some common areas over a half-term, there are opportunities for students to experience, employ and adapt the various features and techniques being taught. Significantly, it will be possible to share with parents more detail of what is being covered in Writing, since the focus will be narrower. This also allows us to use target-setting more effectively, as students are able to learn from early pieces in the half-term and apply the target in the next piece. This replaces a system where too often children (particularly in upper KS2) have writing targets which are not particularly relevant to the text types/genres being taught.

Obviously this is just a broad example which doesn’t link directly to any topics or themes that are being taught. As with all models, it wouldn’t be possibly to transfer it wholesale from school to school because it would work best when properly aligned with the wider curriculum. However, hopefully it may provide an interesting discussion point for schools thinking about tackling the content of the new curriculum?

Comments welcomed!

What should the primary curriculum really look like?

Or: What is the point of teaching them all this stuff anyway?

I’m firmly of the belief that a majority (perhaps the large majority) of primary teachers share the same view: that we force-feed the kids in our classes a diet of breadth over depth because the curriculum, or the tests, or Ofsted, or SLT’s demand it. I think most primary teachers – particularly in infants and lower juniors – find themselves teaching things that they think are being delivered ‘too soon’ for the children in their care.

This is not an argument for the molly-coddling of children, or the lowering of standards. Rather it is an argument for a rationalisation of what we try to teach.

Coming from a middle school background, I have long wished that the 9-13 Middle Schools of the 70s had really taken off. I wish that the National Curriculum from its first inception had been built around the three main phases of first, middle and upper schools. Then, we might perhaps have had a different approach. Perhaps not in 1988, but maybe by now we might have recognised that very little really matters in the curriculum for children under 9 unless they are already confident with number and language.

I raise this point because of a brief discussion I had with Heather () on Twitter this evening. She quite rightly pointed out that starting to teaching persuasive writing in Year 1 didn’t seem to be contributing to a significant growth in the transferability of such skill at GCSE level. And if the skills aren’t transferable after 10 or 11 years’ teaching, then what’s the point? My response was both complete agreement and disagreement.

I disagreed because I think the point of teaching persuasive writing at KS1 is not to enhance the persuasive writing skills of 16-year-olds. In fact, I think the only purpose for any form of writing at KS1 is the practice of the basic skills of writing itself: the building of sentences; the use of capital letters; the simple formation of the symbols. However, I agree that expecting the teaching of varied genres at KS1 to have much impact on the ability of children to write for different purposes is frankly erroneous.

So, what then, is the point of any such work?

Looking back at the three-tier model, I’d be quite happy to see a curriculum substantially different to the one we have in place at the moment. This links in with Michael Fordham’s (@mfordhamhistorypost on an altered Secondary curriculum (which is well worth a read). In it, Fordham argues that English as a separate subject (as distinct from Literature) ought to be removed from the curriculum and its various aspects be properly addressed in domain-specific subject lessons. A genuine approach to Literacy across the curriculum. I’d be happy with that model, and what’s more, I think that it should be balanced by the inverse approach at first school age.

Given the choice, I’d happily see a three-tier curriculum (as in first, middle and upper stages) that broadly followed this pattern:

First School (age 5-9): Only English, Maths and Modern Languages would be statutorily prescribed programmes of study. All other subjects currently in the National Curriculum would become part of required areas of study (Arts, Humanities, Sciences, etc.) which were intended to provide breadth of experience and support the core subjects. Physical Education would also remain statutory, with no programme of study.

English and Maths programmes of study would be re-shaped to focus on Literacy and Numeracy. That is, all children would be expected to focus on developing oracy, and reading and writing basics (comprehension, building sentences, vocabulary, paragraphs, etc.), without concern for genres or required areas of study.That’s not to say that children wouldn’t meet other genres, or contexts, but that these would merely be to support the core teaching aims, rather than becoming additional goals in their own right.

Similarly, in Maths the requirements would focus largely on number work with relatively brief forays into shape as appropriate. To be fair, the new Maths curriculum has moved a good way towards this. I have often heard many secondary maths teachers say they’d be happy to teach Y7s who came to secondary secure with number bonds and tables and relatively little else. I’d agree, but think we could move to that sooner. Let’s have all 9-year-olds ready for the next level.

By removing the requirements to study particular programmes of study in all areas, it ought to be possible to move towards a system where the current Level 4 expectations could be met by the majority of 9-year-olds, rather than 11-year-olds. As Mark McCourt (@EmathsUK) said this weekend at the maths conference: Maths is like Jenga – pupils don’t fail because of weaknesses in the blocks at the top!

Middle School (age 9-13): The current subjects of the National Curriculum would remain, although English and Maths would be radically re-shaped to reflect the changes in the first school range. English could now begin to focus more on literature, although as Michael Fordham suggests, ought not to need as much curriculum time as at present (often 7.5+ hours a week in primary schools) as literacy should be mastered by age 9. There would still be study of language and some genre-linked ideas, but the shift towards domain-specific writing should be reflected in a shift in timetabled hours. I would argue that Middle Schools used to do this, until the KS2 SATs demanded that they narrow their timetables to focus on meeting the odd demands of the tests.

This model should leave more time in this phase for the study of subject knowledge. It would be far more sensible, for example, to begin a study of chronological history at age 9 and maintain it until at least age 16, rather than the current 7-14, and would be far more successful if students had already mastered the required literacy skill. Of course, this also would be combined with the middle school approach to specialism. We should expect all teachers of first school-age children to be expert in the teaching of early reading, writing and mathematics. We simply cannot expect that to apply right up to the age of 11 any more. It isn’t working.

Upper School (13+): The model that Michael Fordham suggests seems to make a good deal of sense to me here. By this stage children should have a broad experience of all the subjects, underpinned by their ability to access and use texts and a secure knowledge of number work. Ideally I’d argue for greater breadth until the age of 18 as well

 

Of course, none of this is rocket science. Indeed, most of it fits with what many primary teachers already think: if we spent less time ploughing through genres, or tackling history concepts with 8-year-olds, we could focus more on the things that really matter, and give those kids the freedom to access all matter of higher level material as they got older. Surely that’s got to be better than the current system which tries to build all curriculum areas from age 5… and too often leaves interventions at 16 to try to plug the gaps the system leaves?


Addendum: I ought to note that it wouldn’t necessarily be a requirement to change the whole system to a three-tier model. But I would argue quite strongly that expecting any primary teacher to be an expert in all areas of the curriculum up to Y6 level is never going to provide us with the best system; middle schools present a good solution to this; specialisation in small primaries is much harder.

 

Primary Progression Documents for English & Maths

Example progression documentThe nature of the new curriculum documentation is such that the primary section alone lasts for some 200 pages. It makes sense that it is organised in year group order for the core subjects, but it also makes it harder to visualise the progression of concepts and skills. That’s particularly problematic if you’re trying to identify key thresholds for assessment or planning.

Therefore, I have created these simple documents to support schools. They are not revolutionary, but simply present the objectives from the National Curriculum in a sequence of progression strands from Year 1 to Year 6 across Reading, Writing and Mathematics. Hopefully they might help schools in organising their curricula, and also in identifying progression across these very large subjects.

As with all my materials, they are also available at www.primarycurriculum.me.uk/support, and I recommend looking at the other resources available there to support schools’ journeys in implementing the new curriculum.

The documents are all shared here for ease, including easily printable versions:

English progression document (editable Excel file)

Reading progression document (printable A3 PDF)

Writing progression document (printable A3 PDF – 2 pages)

Maths progression document (editable Excel file)

Maths progression document (printable A3 PDF  – 3 pages)